Vanished: Va.-based Aireon to launch global plane-tracking system

Within the next few days, new plane-tracking technology will go live, in an attempt to help minimize the risk of commercial planes disappearing.

Aireon, based in McLean, Virginia, is in the final days of testing the first worldwide, real-time airplane monitoring and tracking system.

Currently, radar is still used to track planes, but since the 1930s-era technology requires line-of-sight, it doesn’t work everywhere.

“There is 70 percent of the world’s airspace that has no surveillance coverage,” said Aireon CEO Don Thoma. “That includes the oceans and mountainous regions.”

Thoma said air traffic controllers around the world have developed protocols to make sure planes are kept separate, but they are not precise.

“Let’s say you’re flying over the ocean, looking at the map on the seat back in front you,” Thoma said. “You know where you are, the pilot knows where you are because the plane has GPS, but the reality is air traffic control organizations know approximately where you are.”

Currently, pilots report their exact location — either through an automated data message, or by voice — every 10 or 15 minutes, Thoma said. “So, there’s long gaps in between when the pilot and air traffic controllers have a synchronized idea of the plane’s location.”

In almost every case, the periodic check-in protocol works fine. However, in rare instances, such as Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared five years ago this month, disasters can greatly complicate the search for planes which veered off course.

In the wake of the Malaysia Airlines disaster, all commercial airplanes are mandated to have built-in transponders, which are turned on whenever the aircraft is flying, by the year 2020.

Utilizing 66 recently-launched Iridium communications satellites, Aireon gathers data from the transponders, about the plane’s speed, heading, altitude and position.

“You’ll be able to pick up, roughly once a second, the location of that aircraft, and that information gets sent in real-time to air traffic control,” Thoma said.

Not only will the data be useful in emergency situations, it will also allow planes to take more direct routes over oceans. For example, currently, flights from the United States to Europe must fly northeast, to maintain radar contact in Iceland and Greenland, rather than due east.

“The system is operational everywhere — we’re collecting the information,” said Thoma. When it goes online, “the system will be used operationally, for air traffic control, in Canada and in the U.K.”

In the U.S., Thoma said the Federal Aviation Administration has been working with the company, but has not fully committed to paying for the service when it launches. “They’ve used their test aircraft to help us validate the system, so they’ve been quite involved in the development of it.”

Thoma said the FAA decided late last year to go forward with a small trial in the Miami Oceanic, or Caribbean airspace, “to help validate the operational use of the system.” He said he trusts the FAA’s focus on air safety, as well as support from air traffic and pilots organizations will eventually result in the FAA fully adopting the system.

In addition to the world’s air traffic control organizations, Aireon also will offer its data to airlines, to streamline their operations.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

This content was republished with permission from CNN.

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